Airplane pilots are optimists. “Everything will be fine,” we say before a flight, but a touch of doubt lingers because we know that mechanical things fail, people make mistakes and aviation, like the sea, is inherently unforgiving of failure or mistake.
That thought was on my mind recently when we took off from Burlington, Vermont, aboard a classic old airplane, a twin engine DC-3 built in 1945. Less than three hours later, in a flash event, both the failure and the mistake happened at the same time.
The flight left at first light on a cold but clear morning in early April. I was the co-pilot sitting in the right front cockpit seat and happy to be there; in fact I had waited more than 60 years to be there. We were flying northeast toward Goose Bay on a trip that was to be the first leg of a planned journey across the North Atlantic to deliver the airplane to its new home in Russia.
After crossing the broad reach of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we flew towards the Labrador border over a long stretch of still frozen Canadian wilderness. My immediate duty then was to mentor the man in the left seat. He was the plane’s new owner, a Russian businessman and amateur pilot named Yevgeny Barsov, who was getting some practice at flying the airplane by hand.
Without any warning the left engine began loudly complaining with a series of pops, chuffs, backfires and vibrations, all the while steadily losing power. As the engine failed, the airplane slewed around to the left and started down. Yevgeny, who had no prior experience with that kind of failure or its consequences, was quickly losing control. In a few seconds we went from level flight to an unrestrained dive that was taking us down toward a rocky ridge just below.
I said, “I’ve got it,” as I pulled the nose up, pushed the right throttle forward, rolled out of the turn, and cranked in some rudder and elevator trim; all to get us back to straight and level flight again. By that time Mike, the DC-3’s captain who was sitting in the cockpit jump seat just behind us, was between the pilot seats and moving the left throttle, propeller and mixture levers in an attempt to find a combination of settings that would get power back.
Mike found a sweet spot, a reduced power setting where the vibration stopped and we were still getting some thrust out of the left engine. A visual inspection showed no fire and the oil pressure held steady. We elected to keep it running for the generator, hydraulic and vacuum power it was giving us. We were definitely in trouble and it was time to get on the ground soon, but where or when? We made a quick decision to divert to the last airport we had seen on the coastline many miles behind. I began a slow, shallow turn to reverse course.
Flying with less engine power, the DC-3 could make only about 120 mph airspeed, enough to stay in the air but not enough to get anywhere fast. On the long flight back the way we had come, I kept a lookout over the endless forest that rolled off to the horizon in search of places to put down if we had to, all the while listening intently to the sound of the right engine. The only clearings were a few frozen lakes, nothing else. How strong was the ice this late? Winter was almost over. After about 40 anxious minutes, the airport we were looking for gradually came into view. Mike got in the left seat and made a perfect single-engine landing at Sept Iles, Quebec.
On the airport ramp, Mike, who was also a certified aircraft mechanic, and Vladimir, a mechanic who came from Russia with Yevgeny, got their tools and began taking the engine apart. They found a broken timing camshaft that led to probable valve and cylinder damage. The damage was too great to be repaired in the field. The airplane would need a new engine. How long would it take to get an engine delivered and installed? At least two weeks, perhaps longer. So we were safe in Quebec, but grounded.
At the time we did not know when or even if the trip would ever continue. Sometimes it just gets too expensive to keep an old airplane flying. But Yevgeny was not going be denied. He had found in America an icon of aviation and he was determined to take it home. The journey did continue and the adventure, which was already pretty exciting, became an even richer experience than I could have imagined.
I first saw the airplane several months earlier when it appeared in a hangar at the Burlington Airport. “That airplane will be here for the winter,” the hangar manager told me. “In the spring it’s going to a museum in Russia.”
From what little I knew about the plane’s speed and range, I imagined that a flight to Russia would be a very slow trip at low altitude over the North Atlantic and northern Europe with a lot of stops for fuel. The trip would have to follow the legendary Blue Spruce Route, blazed during WWII, far north through Canada, Greenland and Iceland. What an enterprise that would be, I thought. How could I get to be a part of it?
DC-3s have always been objects of wonder for me for their graceful shape, the distinctive rumbling sounds of their engines, and the crucial place they hold in history. In 1935 the DC-3 was the first commercial plane that was big, fast, reliable, comfortable, and efficient enough to make airline travel a dependable reality. Every airline had to have them to be competitive. During WWII a stripped down military version, the C-47, became the primary cargo hauler and troop transport for the allied armed forces. Once built by the thousands they are now quite rare and only a very few are in flying condition. The DC-3s that are still flying are almost all ferrying cargo and passengers to rough landing strips in remote places. The airplane will happily operate from a pasture.
At the improbable location of Swanton, Vermont, a tiny town near the Canada line, an entrepreneurial airport manager named George Coy developed a rare niche in the aircraft import/export business. He sells classic U.S. airplanes to a growing market of collectors in Europe. When I learned that George would be the exporter of this DC-3, I called him to ask if I could go along on the delivery flight. He was cool to the idea. The new owner, he said, did not plan to take passengers on the crossing, just the essential crew needed for the delivery. Although in my 32-year career as an airline pilot I flew many types of transport aircraft, I had never flown a DC-3, so I could not offer any direct experience.
As the winter dragged on, I occasionally reminded George of my interest. Then in March he called to say a DC-3 captain was hired, but there was a spot on the crew for me after all. As a crew member on this flight my 22,000 hours of airline flying experience would be helpful on the insurance application, so not only could I go, I could go as the co-pilot. Departure would be in two weeks or sooner, depending on weather conditions in the north.
Be careful what you ask for, you may get it. Now what? I went to the internet, downloaded an ancient DC-3 flight operations manual that had been written in the 1950s for long defunct Canadian cargo airline, and began reading to teach myself something about the airplane in which I was about to put my trust to carry us over the North Atlantic.
This airplane, N97H, was probably built in Santa Monica in 1945 as a C-47 for the Army Air Corps. Most probably it was built by women, since during WWII most of the aircraft assembly line jobs were filled by women, the legendary “Rosie the Riveters.” After the war the airplane was sold as surplus to the Humble Oil Company of Houston, Texas, which converted it to a civilian DC-3 then put in a galley, some boardroom style overstuffed seats and couches, and flew it for many years as an executive transport. That 1948 interior is still in the airplane. After Humble, the airplane passed through several other corporations, finally ending up in service as a nostalgia flight sightseeing airplane in San Francisco in the 1990s.
The airplane had a crisp red and white paint scheme that emphasized the graceful compound curves of her fuselage and wings. DC-3s have a tailwheel, like most airplanes of that time, so on the ground the passenger door at the rear is at eye level and the main cabin tilts up to a set of tiny cockpit windows that sit high in the air behind a stubby round nose. On the front edge of each wing is a radial piston engine with its steel cylinders arranged in a circle and a silver three blade propeller attached at the hub. Those engines, burning high octane aviation gasoline, were the ultimate in power technology in their day; now they’re an anachronism.
Today world aviation is powered by engines that burn jet fuel, which is basically kerosene, and is universally available at an average cost of about $3.00 a gallon. Aviation gasoline, although still produced in small batches, is much more expensive. In the U.S., at the time of this flight, a gallon of aviation gasoline cost $6.00, in Europe a gallon was $9.00, in Africa the price was $22.00 a gallon, and is just not available at any price in many parts of the world. A DC-3 burns a hundred gallons of aviation gasoline each hour that it flies.
At the hangar the pre-flight work got underway in earnest. I met the new owner, Yevgeny Borsov who, along with his mechanic and an assistant, had come from Russia a few days before. Yevgeny was 50ish, short, intense, a bit dour and very smart. In both manner and voice he exuded an air of easy authority. He wore expensive-looking clean clothes, shined shoes, and a pumpkin colored leather flight jacket of this own design with the word PILOT printed above the breast pocket. For as long as I was with him that outfit never changed and it always looked fresh. Near his home in Surgut, Russia he built his own airport and a cluster of hangars to house his growing collection of airplanes. Now he had bought a museum-quality classic airplane in America and he was about to take it home.
Our captain, Mike Macario, arrived from Pennsylvania. A naturally laid back man in his 60s, Mike has been flying, tending and mending DC-3s for more than 40 years. In fact, he grew up with them. His father, who flew corporate transport DC-3s, began giving him instruction in the airplane when Mike was a teenager. He went on to a series of pilot and mechanic ratings, then bought his own DC-3. He is solidly of the round engine tradition. Now he makes his living as the pilot of a corporate jet, but every once and while the chance to get back into a DC-3 comes along for him and he takes it with relish.
Mike would begin the training and test flights needed to build our crew and certify the airplane for our trip. With him as our instructor, Yevgeny and I would get our introduction to flying the DC-3. The airport for our training flights would be the former SAC base across Lake Champlain at Plattsburgh, New York. The runway there, built for Cold War B-52 bombers with nuclear weapons, is two miles long, so big that even beginners like us could not miss it.
Over the course of a long career in aviation, I’ve flown airplanes ranging from two-seat trainers to 300-seat airliners. In that time, the one airplane I always wanted to fly but never had the opportunity was the DC-3, the ubiquitous airliner of my youth. In the intervening years I had seen a lot of DC-3s fly elegantly by, heard the throaty rumblings of their engines, ridden many miles as a very young passenger when they were still in airline service, spent time in the cockpits watching other pilots fly them, but never flown one myself. They were long gone by the time I got to the airline. When my chance to fly this airplane actually came several days later, I was not disappointed.
After the engines were started and the preflight checks completed, we taxied out for my first takeoff. On the runway when I pushed the throttles forward the airplane came alive. With engines roaring at 1200 horsepower each side, the tailwheel up off the pavement, runway rolling under the nose, flight controls active in my hands, I gave a little back pressure on the yoke. The deck angle did not change yet we slowly levitated into the cold March morning air. It was pure grace, a joy to behold. Up into the sky we went, steady and true, carried aloft by those sublimely shaped elliptical wings designed in 1934. Glorious. I felt a visceral elation as the realization of such a long-held dream, a sense of the historical significance of the machine, and validation of my life’s passion for the freedom of flight all came together in a rush.
Leveling off at a thousand feet above the ground, I began some maneuvers to get the feel of the airplane. Turn, climb, descend, whatever I commanded she did with a slow dignity. The airplane was in no hurry, it never had been.
Gliding above the forests of upstate New York, I steered us around to get into position for my first landing. My mind was racing at attention with considerations of attitude, altitude, flap settings, and power management. It was continuous flash judgment based on the responses to the flight controls, the sound of the engines, a glance at the instruments, a quick eyeball estimate of the distance to touchdown.
Standing in the cockpit aisle just behind my seat was Bill Dahler, a long-time DC-3 pilot who was along for the ride. As I lined the airplane up with the runway Bill reached up and slapped my hand. Only then did I realize I was holding the wheel so tightly my hands were white. “Relax,” he said, “treat her nicely. She don’t need all that effort.”
In a leisurely descent toward the pavement, we crossed the airport boundary at about 100 mph with the centerline of the runway straight ahead. I held a steady sink rate until the wheels touched with a slight bounce. On the runway as our speed decreased the tail slowly dropped to the ground. Working hard to keep the airplane straight, I got her slowed then taxied off to the ramp. I looked to Mike Macario in the left seat. He was smiling. “Welcome to the club,” he said. That first landing turned out to be the best DC-3 landing I ever made. The gods were with me or maybe it was the sheer intensity of my concentration.
A tailwheel airplane, especially a 25,000 lb. tailwheel airplane, is a difficult machine to control during landing. Touchdown is on the main wheels with the airplane in a level attitude. On the runway as the speed decreases the rudder becomes less effective for steering and the tail, losing lift, drops. With the nose up the airplane becomes a big weathervane that wants turn into the wind, which means that if nothing is done it will soon leave the runway and go off into the weeds or the snow banks or whatever else is out there. It takes rudder, brakes and sometimes even a burst of power to keep the airplane on the runway. After several more takeoffs and landings, my training time came to an end that day and Mike turned his attention to Yevgeny.
Yevgeny is an earnest aviator who takes his flying seriously, but he had never flown anything as big as the DC-3, nor had he ever flown anything with two engines. I lost count of how many flights around the Plattsburgh airport we made over the next few days with Yevgeny in the left seat as Mike patiently coached. Riding in the back I could feel Yevgeny making progress. The side swings got milder, the climbs and descents more uniform, the bumps and jerks came less frequently.
One morning when we taxied out for a training flight, our taxi route was across the airline terminal ramp. As we rolled past the airliners lined up at the gates a cockpit window in each airplane came open and one by one the pilots stuck out their arms and gave us a thumbs-up salute in tribute. It was a spontaneous expression of universal love and respect for the venerable DC-3.
On those training days we also learned some of the DC-3’s many intricate cockpit procedures. Starting and keeping the radial engines running requires two sets of hands, switches thrown, buttons pushed, then immediate intelligent adjustment and diligent monitoring of the mechanical linkages that control fuel flow, mixture settings, cowl flap positions and propeller pitch. Raising the landing gear involves a memorized sequence of releasing a latch on the floor then working two hydraulic power levers through four separate hand movements.
By the end of a week, I was at least minimally qualified to act as copilot, which was important since our airplane had no autopilot. In fact there was no automatic anything on the airplane. From the moment of engine start through all the time it is in motion until it comes to the end of the flight and the props stop turning, someone has to actually physically control its speed, direction, attitude, altitude and engine operation. So, the fact was we had a lot of hands-on-the-controls flying hours ahead of us; too much for one person. We would all fly.
As we got closer to departure day, cases of oil, chests of food and water, boxes of survival gear including thermal suits designed to float, crates of tools and spare parts, stacks of operating manuals and a satellite phone all went into the airplane. The night before we left I felt confident about the flying; what I still did not know much about were the secrets and mysteries of operating those big radial engines.
The journey began at 0630 on Easter Sunday. Weather was clear and crisp as we left Burlington on the first leg that was planned to be a four-hour flight to Goose Bay, Labrador. We calculated that it would take us four or perhaps five days of flying to get to our final destination, which it turned out was not Russia but Finland. We were headed for Lappeenranta, Finland, east of Helsinki, where there is a civilian airport near the Russian border. The airplane would stay there while Russian aviation authorities made their inspections before issuing the necessary import license. After that a Russian crew would take the airplane to its eventual home at Surgut in Siberia.
As the journey began, Mike Macario was in the left seat flying the airplane. I was in the right pilot’s seat as we climbed out over Mt. Mansfield and headed northeast. At 9000 feet the old airplane was just where it wanted to be, puttering along at 160 mph. The engines were making their classic low growling rumble of sound, the sound that’s been heard by generations of airmen in my seat in the years since this airplane made its first flight in 1945. The tips of the propeller on the right engine were swirling by about six feet from my ear. I was in hog heaven. At cruising altitude my only responsibility was to monitor the flight and engine instruments and answer the occasional call on the radio from Air Traffic Control. That left me generally free to absorb the aura of the time machine I was in and watch the geography of the eastern provinces of Canada slide slowly by my window.
Yevgeny was in the cockpit jump seat. The other crew members were Vladimir Kuznetzov and Javier Martinez. Vlad, in his 40s, is an engineer and the chief mechanic of the museum aircraft collection, responsible for keeping them in flying condition. He came from Russia to learn DC-3 maintenance requirements from the U.S. mechanic who was doing the pre-flight inspections. Vlad didn’t have much English at his command, but he was a quick study with a ready sense of humor.
Javier translated his jokes for us. Javier Martinez was our translator and facilitator. Javier was born in Mexico and educated in Canada; now he teaches English in Surgut. He is also Yevgeny’s long-suffering assistant. On this trip he was the advance man with the credit card who took care of all details, many of which changed daily. When we were on the ground he was busy. Amazingly, his cell phone seemed to work everywhere we landed. I never did find out what originally took him to Surgut, a place I did not know existed a month before.
After we had flown for a while, Mike put Yevgeny in the left seat so he could get some practice time flying the DC-3. I stayed in the right seat to mentor Yevgeny. In the weeks before our departure, his flight training was devoted to takeoffs, circuits around the airport, and landings. Now for the first time he was concentrating on holding consistent heading and altitude, not easy to do by hand in a heavy airplane with no autopilot. We wandered, climbed and descended a bit, but he was improving.
About an hour later, with Yevgeny still at the controls, we crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence and moved over land again. In early April, the land still had a deep snow cover. As we got near the Labrador border, we passed over the first really good wilderness I had seen: mountains, deep canyons, a lot of frozen lakes, no roads, no sign of man.
That’s when the left engine failed and we limped back to Sept Iles.
Nearly two weeks after our landing at Sept Isles, I got the call saying that installation of the new engine was about finished. I had gone home while the work was done, but Yevgeny, Vlad and Javier had stayed on. They were in an interesting bind of international immigration rules. Since they had expected only to make refueling stops as flight crew members in Canada they had not applied for Canadian visas. After they were stranded, the local authorities issued them temporary visas, since it made no sense for them to go on to Russia only to return so soon.
On a Saturday we made a flight with only essential crew on board to test the new engine. High speed, low speed, full power, cruise power, descent power, it all went well. Everything was in order.
Then we made a second flight, a long thank you and scenic flight around the area with passengers, local mechanics and airport officials who had been helpful during the engine change. The chance to get a ride in a DC-3 may never come along for them again. One man brought his grandson in from Montreal for the flight.
With both engines now running well, I got a chance to take a look around during that second flight. Sept Iles is on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, directly above the Gaspe Peninsula. The town is wrapped around a large protected harbor, the best of its kind on that part of the coastline, which makes it a natural shipping port for the minerals being pulled out of the interior of eastern Quebec. As we flew around over the bay, the hills to the north and the seven offshore islands that give the town its name, we also passed a big staging area where ore was loaded on ships and a really large industrial complex of factory buildings. Some serious business going on there.
It was serious business in Russia made it possible for Yevgeny to buy this airplane in the first place. He is the founder and chief executive of a diversified enterprise that builds and manages large commercial and residential buildings. Twenty years ago he was making an adequate but unremarkable living as a civil engineer at an obscure government post in Surgut, 1800 miles east of Moscow in central Russia. Then everything changed as the USSR dissolved with great upheaval to the Russian way of life. For Yevgeny it was the opportunity to unleash his natural talent for organization and leadership and it didn’t hurt that he was in the right place at the right time. Surgut is in the middle of a large area of expanding oil and gas production. He steadily took advantage of changes in political and economic conditions in the 1990s to become an entrepreneur.
On Sunday, 14 days after first leaving Vermont, we resumed the delivery trip with an 850 mile, 6-hour flight straight north from Sept-Iles to Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic.
The flight to Iqaluit was uneventful. Everything mechanical worked just fine. The country we crossed going north in Quebec was unremarkable, simply a vast stretch of flat snow-covered forest with a patchwork of frozen lakes scattered about to the horizon in every direction. As we went on the snow cover increased and the temperature decreased. After several hours we left mainland Canada, and started out over the Hudson Straight toward Baffin Island, our first overwater leg. Actually there was no open water – the ocean surface was still totally frozen. We passed flat-topped islands with sheer rock walls around the edges that looked as if they had been thrust straight up from the ocean floor. Other islands had ranges of low mountains. Nowhere a sign of any habitation.
Arctic visibility was exceptional that day, at least 100 miles. Iqaluit came into view as a collection of black dots on the barren white landscape at the end of a finger of ocean that stretched deep into the island. As we descended for landing and lined up with the runway, more and more correction to the left was needed to keep the airplane on the centerline of the approach. On the ground the wind was blowing hard across instead of straight down the runway, and it was up, way up. The tower at Iqaluit Airport was reporting gusts to 35 knots.
Virtually all modern airplanes have a steerable nosewheel. When you land them in a crosswind you have positive steering control using the front wheel, just like you steer a car. The DC-3’s tailwheel is not steerable. Remember the weathervane?
As we neared the runway, we could see rivers of snow being blown across the pavement. I sat and watched Mike fly the airplane to a touchdown then work his way through the process to get us safely stopped on the runway; brakes, rudder, power, a little of each, correct and compensate, all of it well done. In a wind, even at taxi speed the airplane is unruly. “On the ground in wind with this airplane it’s just sailing and docking,” he said. “You sail it all the way to the gate where you can dock.”
The flight was over but the work was not. We had to refuel before for the next flight, which was set for 0800 the next morning. Refueling was not a simple job. Here in the Arctic virtually all of the airplanes are jets or turboprops and they burn jet fuel. Aviation gasoline is no longer kept in the fuel trucks. If you want gasoline you pump it yourself from 55 gallon barrels and you bring your own pump. Javier, our details man, had pre-arranged for a pallet of gasoline drums be delivered to the airplane and up they came, riding on a forklift. What he didn’t know was that you also have to bring your own pump. Delay while a pump was found to rent. Finally with the wind still blowing, the temperature dropping and night approaching, the pumping began with a very slow pump powered by a car battery. It took a long time to get full tanks. When it was over, Vladimir, who had been up on the wings with the fuel hose the whole time, was nearly frozen.
With a population of about 7000, Iqaluit is the capital city of the recently established territory of Nunavut that covers the 800,000 square miles of islands and ocean north of Hudson Bay. Iqaluit is functional: no trees, gravel streets, buildings scattered about, no real ambiance, just population at a place where the business of government is done. What is now the town was little more than an ancient hunting camp until 1942, when the U.S. Army Air Corps built a runway there as a refueling stop for WWII supply and ferry flights to Europe. The Army built the buildings it needed and called the place Frobisher Bay Air Base. Gradually a support village grew up around the base. The government of Canada took over when the U.S. pulled out in the 1960s.
That night we ate local caribou steak and were surprised to get with it some fresh vegetables and a good California wine that had come in on the daily supply flight from Ottawa. Iqaluit may be distant but it’s not isolated. The government of Canada has seen to that.
Monday, was the day we actually left North America on the way to Europe. Iqaluit was COLD: -14 C and wind steady at 26 knots. Overnight there was no hangar available to get the airplane in out of the cold, so in the morning two heater trucks with hoses running to the engines blasted hot air in an attempt to get the engine oil temperatures up to an acceptable level for start. That process took two hours, which meant we could not get off as early as hoped.
An engine start in those conditions is a challenge. Thick oil does not immediately move to where it is needed. As the propeller turns and the cylinders fire, the engine rattles and clanks as metal rubs metal while the oil is slowly pumped from the oil tank and distributed to the moving parts. After ten minutes or so of warm up at idle, the throttles can be advanced to a power setting high enough to move the airplane. With the long pre-start and engine warm up done we could finally taxi out. At last the takeoff roll began at about 10:00 local time.
Our destination that day was Sondrestrom airport at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. The flight was planned for 4:10 and we would gain two hours as we crossed time zones, so we knew it would be late afternoon when we got there. We were under some time pressure because Greenland has a flight curfew. All aviation ceases and the airports close at 5:00 pm local time.
Climbing out of Iqaluit, again in a clear sky, we could see what looked like endlessly barren white ground and the island shoreline stretching away to the north horizon. We had heard that 400 miles farther north there was an active diamond mine. I wondered who was up there to find the diamonds in the first place.
The air at altitude was even colder than on the ground, -24C. After we leveled off and set cruise power, the engines began to complain about the cold. First one engine then the other would cough and vibrate and pause for a half a beat before resuming its rhythm. Were the intakes icing? Was the fuel-air ratio too lean? Mike and Vlad began to experiment with power settings. This exercise is when the operator literally becomes one with the engine as subtle adjustments are made, first with the carburetor heat control lever, then with mixture control. Did that make it better or worse? What is the tachometer showing? Then a pause to listen. Do they sound right? Mike and Vlad, as long-time caretakers of round engines, intuitively understood the process and were seemingly unconcerned about the outcome. They knew they would get it right.
While that was going on, I got an uneasy feeling along the back of my neck and in the pit of my stomach. I was thinking that the engines were running rough again, we were about to leave land for the first time to go out over a really long stretch of ocean, and I’m a volunteer here. Why did I agree to do this? Wasn’t the engine failure back at Sept Iles enough of a warning?
But things eventually settled down. When they finally got the right combination of settings the engines stopped complaining. After that I felt better about my decision to come along.
The bleak frozen landscape gave way to bleak frozen water of the Davis Straight and you can’t really see much difference except there are no mountains in the water. After droning along for more than two hours, Greenland eventually came into view. The air is so clear, visibility excellent, you can see the land from a long way, but at 160 mph you can’t really get there as quickly as you would like to.
Crossing the coastline of Greenland, we flew over a spectacular fjord that leads to Sondrestrom airport which is about 50 miles inland. The fjord had mountains on both sides so we had to stay at a higher altitude that we normally would approaching an airport. The DC-3 can’t make rapid descents like a jet because descending fast with the power at idle will shock cool the engines and possibly crack some of the cylinders. When we finally got the airport in sight, we flew up overhead the field and did a series of slow spirals down to land.
After the flight, we all had a chance to look around. Greenland was in fact brown tundra, not green that early in the season. A few miles east of us was the edge of the ice sheet that covers virtually all of the country. The ice wall appeared as a dingy off-white mass that stretched up and away out of sight.
Sondestrom, built by the U. S. Army Air Corps in 1941, was an active U.S. military airbase until 1992. By then the Soviet Union was unraveling, the Cold War was over. When the U.S. Air Force departed, their base became a civilian airport under Greenlandic Home Rule. Today there is one long runway and a random collection of former military buildings. The airport is a now a hub for Air Greenland and several of their bright red propjets were parked on the civilian ramp. There is also still a military side of the field where Danish and U.S. Air Force C-130s were parked.
The village of Kangerlussuaq, which grew up around the air base, is the service community for the airfield. It’s pretty small, about 500 permanent residents. A short walk in any direction takes you to open country.
We went to Hotel Tuttu (Reindeer), a very sparse lodging in what once was a U.S. Army barracks at the edge of the airfield. By then it was evening in that time zone and we were all tired after a long day that started with the extended pre-heat at Iqaluit, so we got together for a quick bland meal in the hotel dining room and dispersed to our rooms for the night. Hotel Tuttu has no Wi-Fi, no in-room connection to internet, hence no way to use my Skype to call home. I could have used the hotel’s overseas calling system but it was very expensive, so I decided not to call. I should have.
Before I left, I gave the DC-3’s registration number, N97H, to several friends so they could track our progress on FlightAware. One man, who is not an aviation person, but who was keenly interested in the journey, had patiently followed our path across Quebec to Iqaluit. When we left Iqaluit he was again at this screen as we crossed Baffin Island and started out overwater for Greenland. He watched the little airplane symbol leave the island shore and move slowly out to sea.
Halfway to Greenland, it stopped moving. What neither of us knew is that FlightAware only tracks flights in North America and our flight had just flown out of FlightAware’s coverage area, but nothing on the screen showed that. He checked the screen several times that day but the view was always the same, the airplane had not moved from the midpoint in the ocean between Canada and Greenland. In the evening he called my wife. “Have you heard from Steve today?” he asked, trying to sound casual. “No, not today,” she said. After 25 years of marriage to a pilot who was often thousands of miles away and out of contact she was not concerned. “Well, I’m sure everything is fine,” he said, “but could you just let me know if you do?” Later I asked him what he did next. He said he looked at the news reports from that area.
Tuesday came with another clear and cold morning, nothing like Iqaluit cold, yet cool enough that engine pre-heat would still be needed. Our good luck with arctic weather was holding. Since leaving Vermont, each of our flying days had been in good visibility, often unlimited. However, Mike and I were both watching European weather. There was a nasty low pressure system along the Norway coast that had not moved much for several days. We hoped it would be out of there soon.
On the ramp at Sondrestrom after pre-heat, two successful engine starts and the usual slow run warm-up, we went through our routine engine power, carburetor heat and magneto checks. All went well until the right engine failed its magneto check. On old airplane engines, the spark to fire the cylinders is made by magnetos, which are mechanical devices connected to engine rotation, which means they make spark when the engine runs. Each engine has two magnetos. It is a good, safe system that works well until it doesn’t. One of our magnetos was not firing. We shut down, tools, ladders, coveralls came out and were set up out on the ramp. This time it was the right engine that came apart.
While Mike and Vlad opened up the engine cowl, Yevgeny, Javier and I stood to the side and speculated about the possibility of being stranded in Greenland. This entire operation: the airplane, the flight and all of our expenses, was being paid for by Yevgeny. These mechanical incidents and time delays were adding to what must have already been an enormous cost, yet he accepted each new setback with an apparent calm that surprised me because I had seen flashes of impatience from him when dealing with people. When I asked him about it, his response was, “Owning this airplane, making a journey like this is something I have wanted to do all my life. Now I can do it and we actually are doing it, so whatever happens is just part of this experience that I am liking very much.”
Yevgeny told of growing up in what is now Turkmenistan, where his father was a civilian pilot who flew cargo and passenger flights around southern regions of the USSR. They lived at the airfield in a close knit community of pilots, mechanics and their families, where aviation was the common bond of their work and social structure. Although Yevgeny’s life took a different track, his success has allowed him to recreate some of the aviation environment he loved back then. His father flew an Antonov An-2, a big mass-produced single-engine biplane utility/agricultural aircraft that was developed after WWII. Yevgeny found and restored an An-2 and now flies it from his Surgut airport.
The ramp where we were standing was next to the military tarmac. It wasn’t long before a couple of Air Force pilots walked over the see our airplane. Military pilots, civilian pilots, airline pilots, it doesn’t matter; we all feel the historic lure of the DC-3. Traveling with a DC-3 is like walking with a puppy: everyone wants to pet the puppy, say how cute it is, and tell you how lucky you are to have such a nice puppy.
After going inside to see our airplane, one of the aircraft commanders took Yevgeny, Javier and me over to his C-130 and gave us a tour. The Air Force pilots in Greenland were from the Schenectady, New York Air Guard, which has the only C-130s equipped with retractable skis. They have a unique mission to provide a high-powered airlift for the scientific research stations on the ice cap in Greenland and in Antarctica, which means they land those big four-engine transports on the ice cap, usually in some pretty terrible weather. They told us they have onboard technology that can create an instrument approach to a touchdown at any point on the planet, runway or not. Impressive.
Meanwhile Mike and Vlad came up with a way to re-wire the right engine’s magnetos so, four hours late, we finally launched for the next leg to Iceland.
After takeoff, we went up and over the great Greenland ice cap. For the next hour and a half, we flew over a vast, flat expanse of white. There were ripples in the surface of the ice but no real discernible landform features, just ice as far as we could see in every direction. Approaching the eastern edge of Greenland, we crossed mountains and broad valleys where glaciers go down to the sea. It is in those broad bays where major icebergs calve off and float out to sea, eventually ending up in the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. In that clear sky, what a spectacular view we had of it all. There was open ocean ahead, looking cold.
The engines were running well, making that low rumbling sound we wanted to hear so, over Kulusuk on the east coast of Greenland we went out over the North Atlantic. That would be our longest leg with no alternate places to land, about 450 miles.
When we were well out over the big water, I began to think about the survival possibilities here. I was in the front of the airplane, my big orange cold water survival suit was in a crate at mid-ship and the only exit door was at the far rear end of the airplane. I begin to calculate how long it would take me to get the suit on and get out the door after we settled into the water. How long would a DC-3 float? Fortunately we never had to find out.
After 5:20 of flight, we got to Iceland by what was by then late evening there. At the Reykjavik airport there is a first rate hotel less than 100 yards from the flight operations office. After we checked in I called home. “Why is Pete worried about your flight?” my wife asked.
By far the best inbound customs clearance and outbound flight handling experience of the trip was at BIRK Flight Services at Reykjavik. (BIRK is the international identification code for Reykjavik Airport.) When we walked in the next morning, I was handed a print-out of the flight plan they had filed for us along with ten sheets of weather briefing material and a complete DC-3 customized Jeppesen trip log of our proposed flight with elapsed time estimates for every waypoint and lat/long fix on our route. How great was that?
For once we had a normal start and launch for our next destination, Bergen, Norway, which was about six flying hours away. The poor weather in northern Europe we’d watched for several days with the hope that it would move was still there. The flight was again a long overwater journey, but there were alternate landing options as we would go near both the Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands on the way.
The engines ran smoothly all the way, never missing a beat, which was comforting. We were on top of solid lower cloud decks for most of the flight, so the island waypoints went by unseen; still it was good to know they were there and to talk with their air traffic controllers. The six hours went by relatively fast as Mike, Yevgeny and I took turns flying. We even put Vladimir and Javier in the cockpit seats for a while to give them the experience of handling a DC-3. At cruise, with everything trimmed and going well, the airplane is very stable, needing only a light touch on the controls to maintain straight and level.
In late afternoon, churning along through low clouds and rain, we crossed the coast of Norway, which meant we had crossed the North Atlantic. I was glad it was done. Those cranky old round engines sound great when they’re running well but because of their temperamental nature you can’t help wondering how long they will run.
I also thought of the thousands of DC-3s/ C47s that were flown all over the world during WWI by 21-year old aircraft commanders with maybe 200 hours total flying time. On our flight we had a GPS with a current database to plot our course. They had a compass and a paper chart with a line drawn on it by a navigator who often had less experience than the pilot. Their only navigation radio was a shaky low frequency receiver which, if it got a signal from a land-based transmitter, could only point in the general direction of where they wanted to go. By contrast, we made a precision ILS instrument approach to the airport at Bergen, Norway, where it was wet but relatively warm compared to where we’d been.
In the morning, sheets of cold rain driven by strong winds hit the windows of our hotel in central Bergen. On the 20-minute drive out to the airport, the side windows of our taxi were so fogged over no one but the driver could see out. As a crew, we sat in gloomy silence. At the SAS Flight Operations office the meteorologists on duty handed us pages of information about the weather conditions on our planned route to Finland, none of it very encouraging. Rain, multiple layers of clouds, low ceilings and visibilities were reported for nearly the whole distance, but there was some good news. The forecast for Lappeenranta airport in Finland, about 20 kilometers from the Russian border and our final destination, called for improvement to visual conditions by the time we would be arriving.
Our major concern was with the potential for icing. The freezing level would be at about 6000 feet but the minimum altitude for our route was 12,000 feet to clear the mountains in central Norway. This airplane did not have de-ice boots on the wings. They were taken off when the airplane was painted and never put back on.
We could, of course, stay on the ground and wait for better weather. We were not forced to go; yet we were under subtle pressure to go. It was the last leg of an effort that began more than a month ago for Yevgeny, Vlad and Javier when they arrived in the U.S. They were stuck in Sept Iles for the two weeks it took to find, ship, and install the new left engine. Mike and I were both running out of time to keep other commitments we had back in the U.S. Now there was just one more five-hour flight to complete the journey. The weather forecast for the next day was not much better; that low pressure system on the Norway coast was just not moving. We decided to go.
Two minutes after takeoff, we lost sight of the ground and did not see it again for hours. Weather conditions aloft in Norway were plain miserable, rough and wet. It was a long slow climb to 12,000 feet. In and out of clouds as the climb continued, we did begin to pick up some ice.
“We’re doing fine,” Mike said. “DC-3s can carry a lot of ice.” He was right. By the time we reached our cruising altitude the cockpit windows were covered with ice. There was one little clear space on the back edge of my side window where I could see out. What I could see was a layer of ice accumulating on the engine cowls and wing leading edges. As the ice increased, the airplane slowed a bit and required a little more positive control, but never became unstable, which I took as a testament to the wisdom of those early slide rule aeronautical engineers at Douglas Aircraft who came up with that sturdy wing design 80 years ago.
Still, we were taking the engines through a lot of cold, wet air, not the kind they prefer. While Vladimir watched the carburetor heaters and Mike tweaked the mixtures, we had only one engine hesitation. Of course, that was over the highest part of the mountains in Norway. In time my adrenalin level dissipated with no lasting effect.
Over central Sweden, we broke out into sunshine on top of the cloud layers that still obscured the land below us. Once we were out of the clouds, the ice on the airplane slowly sublimated, clearing the windows and freeing the airframe. On we went across the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea, over the Aland Islands, then entered Finland near Turku – yet we actually saw none of it.
Our scheme of sharing the flying duties had become routine. Most of the time I stayed in the right seat while Mike and Yevgeny alternated in the left. Pilots who sit side by side in a cockpit for long periods of time tend to have long conversations. That was true even when Yevgeny and I were in the cockpit seats. We were from very different worlds and there was the language barrier; still we were just two pilots flying together.
He talked nostalgically about life under the old Soviet Communist system. I found that ironic for a man who had benefited so much from the freedom and opportunity of the new economic structure of his country. His reasoning was that when the major decisions affecting your life were made by the state there was no competition between people so truer and deeper friendships could exist. Also, he missed the time, he said, when there was a certainty of being that does not exist today in his country. With more freedom came more uncertainty and the added tension of making career and money decisions, having to cope with the new complexities of a more fluid life. It sounded like the Russian version of capitalism was producing some of the same complaints heard in the Western world.
Nearing Helsinki, we were able to get the latest weather reports. Conditions in Finland were improving. Lappeenranta, our destination, was now reporting ceiling and visibility high enough for a visual landing, which meant we could continue on. Had the weather at Lappeenranta required an instrument approach, we would have diverted to Helsinki because the control tower at Lappeenranta is closed during the day (they are open in the morning for one airline departure and again in the evening for the return flight). When the tower was closed, ATC could not clear us for an approach. However, the Europeans have a very practical solution to this called a Yankee IFR clearance.
We had flown from Bergen under Yankee Instrument Flight Rules, allowing us to operate in poor weather. Under terms of Yankee IFR, we could continue as an IFR flight with Air Traffic Control supervision and monitoring until the last designated navigation point on our route then, if our destination weather was good enough, our flight status changed and we were released to continue visually on our own to find the airport and land. When we reached that final fix on the airway, the ATC controller we were talking with at the time wished us well and gave us a phone number to call when we got on the ground.
By then we had descended to 2000 feet. It was still raining but the visual conditions were good. We were over a vast, flat plain that was covered by pine forest, lakes, marshy stretches, an occasional unpaved road. After being released, we flew a compass heading from our last known fix to where the airport should be while we calculated our time and distance covered. After several minutes the Lappeenranta airport slowly came into view, a large clearing in the forest ahead.
We had done it. We had completed our part of an enterprise that began months before, and we had even flown the last leg of the journey in classic DC-3 style, out there on our own, using dead reckoning to actually find what for us had only been a spot on a chart before it came into view.
That felt good, but there was also some sadness. As Mike guided N97H around in a broad turn to line up with the runway for our final landing, I scanned the inside of the cockpit, looked at Yevgeny sitting in the jump seat behind us, glanced back into the cabin where Vlad and Javier were strapped into their seats, took in the view I had through my right cockpit window, trying to put it all into memory. That would no doubt be my last time in a DC-3.
On the ground not only was the tower closed, everything was closed, including the customs and immigration office, so we never officially entered Finland. There would be no stamp in my passport.
While we were unloading our stuff in the rain and trying to keep it dry under the airplane, some pilots from the local flying club came out of their hangar to see the airplane. We took them into the cabin and cockpit and made new friends, again. “You flew this old airplane all the way from America?” Yes we did.
I stood on the ramp to look at the airplane for the last time. While her engines did give us some tense moments, all in all she did us well; carried us, our cargo, and even a load of ice when she had to, across the arctic wilderness, an ocean and several mountain ranges. Not that it was anything new to her. That’s the job she had done since 1945.
Inside their hangar, the flying club guys showed us their fleet of planes and an interesting collection of WWII memorabilia, including photographs of Luftwaffe fighters parked in long rows along the runway. This airfield is one of the oldest in Finland, built in the early 1930s. In 1941, Finland allowed the German armed forces to go through the country on its attack of Russia and the Luftwaffe based their airplanes at Lappeenranta. For several years the field was a very active Luftwaffe airbase.
After some enthusiastic talk about aviation, the local flyers loaded us and all our gear into their cars and drove us to the hotel in town.
At the hotel that night we had a long goodbye dinner with our Russians. They would continue east to resume their lives in Russia. The airplane would stay in Finland until the Russian aviation authority paperwork could be completed.
It was a wrap for Mike and me. Early the next morning, after not much sleep, we boarded a train to Helsinki then a Finnair flight home. Soon after we had a nice meal at 38,000 feet in the pressurized, air conditioned comfort of a Boeing airliner, a dramatic contrast to our transportation from the United States.
On the flight home, I thought of a sign I once saw at a tidy little country airport with a grass runway in rural upstate New York. There is a sign above the hangar door that reads: CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF RELATIVELY SAFE FLYING. That’s just perfect. They got it right. Flying will always be only relatively safe, especially flying in old airplanes. In my view everything that is fun should only be relatively safe.
As a new airline co-pilot in the 1960s, I was often paired with captains who had flown C-47s in WWII. They were real “pilots’ pilots,” great stick and rudder men who handled the airplanes with admirable finesse. They had an uncanny sense of where they were in time and space because C-47 pilots flying low and slow with minimal navigation equipment developed the ability to read the landscape. They knew where that river would lead us, the name of that lake, how high the mountains ahead were and, by reference to landmarks, how many miles we were from the next checkpoint. Try to explain that today to a 29-year old at 35,000 feet in an all video screen computer managed airliner cockpit. What he or she knows is we left New York and we’re going to Houston. Any other ground information is irrelevant.
Also, to a man, the C-47 pilots from WWII each had some unusual flying procedures; tricks they taught themselves that they were convinced had kept them alive during the war. So each captain had a different concept of how we should operate our airplane. The captain knew his procedures but he might or might not bother to explain what they were. Co-pilots were expected to know each man’s quirks in that regard, which made for some interesting moments of noisy confusion in the cockpit.
Our DC-3 on this flight, N97H, eventually made it into Russia months later with a Russian crew. It was first flown to Moscow, where Yevgeny maintains a home, then farther east to Surgut in Siberia, where his business headquarters is located. Yevgeny’s airport at the edge of the city now has a flight school, hangars for his collection of aircraft and an aviation museum. A description of all of it is shown on the web site www.aviabarsov.com, which is in Russian. Google Chrome does a great job of translating 95% of the content on the web site.